Department stores were once glamorous refuges from the mundane, offering an insight into the latest fashions and designs as well as a glimpse into luxurious living. By the mid-twentieth century, department stores were in their heyday and Debenhams led the way in the UK with its 110 stores. But a lot has changed since then.

Today’s department stores now face a lot more competition. The introduction of out of town retail parks and the rapid acceleration of online shopping have certainly played a part in luring shoppers away from traditional high street stores.


So, as Debenhams falls into administration and House of Fraser struggles to save its remaining stores, we could be forgiven for thinking that the department store has had its day. But is this really the case?

 The evolving shopping experience
As shopper expectations continue to evolve, many department stores have attempted to adapt to make them more relevant to today’s consumers. For example, in 2018, Debenhams unveiled its ‘Debenhams Redesigned’ strategy to reinvent its store layout and shopping experience. However, these attempts to modernise its stores were too little too late. 

Vittorio Radice, vice chairman of the Italian chain La Rinascente, believes that department store chains don’t appeal to customers as much as they used to because they have become too identikit without any bearing on their location. His advice is to adopt the personality of the town in which they are located, so the department store becomes a reflection of its location, not a clone of every other store in the chain. After all, today’s shoppers are looking for more than just products and the department store needs to offer something unique.

And La Rinascente is not the only retailer evolving its offering to meet customers’ ever-increasing expectations. Unlike Debenhams, U.S. chain Kohl’s understands that it cannot rely on heritage alone to keep shoppers coming into stores. The brand now accepts Amazon items for return and offers the service for free in a bid to drive traffic into shops and bring more relevance to its customers.

Embracing technology
Technology can also help retailers to transform the traditional shopping experience. Examples include using virtual and augmented reality to engage shoppers, or providing sales staff with tablets to answer customer queries or process payments.

But implementing new technology is not the only answer; simple changes to existing technology can also help. With the help of software that captures real-time transaction data at the point of sale, this data can be analysed and used to create targeted customer campaigns and personalised messages and offers at the checkout. All proven to increase shopper engagement and improve the customer experience.

Surpassing expectations
We may be close to witnessing the demise of Debenhams, but it’s not the end of the road for the department store just yet. With 82% of sales still taking place in-store, the retailers that succeed will be those that are able to replicate the convenience and choice of online shopping in the physical store through a combination of tactics such as the adoption of new technologies, marketing approaches and greater collaboration between brands.

Approaches will vary depending on location, sector and store size, but those willing to embrace change in these areas will significantly improve their chances of success. The department store clearly has a role to play in the retail landscape of the future, but it will need to work hard, make bold decisions, and keep evolving to survive these turbulent times.

By David Buckingham, CEO, Ecrebo